“You had better have one King than five hundred”
“Just a bit of fun! Just a bit of fun!”
The TV burbled away to itself in the corner of the living room as the candidate paced back and forth. He wished he could be back in the serene Cotswold countryside, but Jeffrey had been insistent; the Republic’s first directly-elected President under the new constitution should see the election out in the capital. So here he was, staying in Roy’s Hampstead home, wondering if he’d be spending the next evening in the grimy, half-abandoned shell of Buckingham Palace.
He hated London. It’s never really recovered from the war, he thought; the old buildings are derelict and the new ones are horrible modernist aberrations. Sometimes he could weep at what had been done to the city in the name of socialist ‘progress’. What was wrong with facades, curves, arches? There were some nice areas- he smiled as he thought of the lovely half-timbered arts and crafts homes on Highgate Hill- but even these were soot-blackened by the capital’s killer smog, and as for what the air did to all that exposed concrete in London’s newer buildings… No more grotesque concrete stumps, a Clean Air Act and a dose of village life; that’s the way to renew the capital.
The television- an American model brought across especially to take advantage of the new colour broadcasts- flashed up a picture of one of his rivals, and he turned to Roy, who was pouring himself a glass of claret. “Do we have any projections for the Lenin fellow?” he asked.
Jeffrey smirked as he talked over his host. “We have reports of unusually strong turnout in the Yorkshire mining towns- but not for him.”
Roy eventually got a word in edgeways; not normally a problem he had to face. “They say he’s stwuggling to bweak out of his Merseyside base…” he began, but the candidate paid little attention to the reply; the television image had shifted again to an image of the Wellington Arch on Hyde Park Corner, and the sight stirred an old memory of driving past in the back of a car as they left London, his father shouting angrily about the fucking reds having already killed half his family, his mother staring out of the window, gripping his hand so hard it hurt.
He was too young to remember what had triggered the panic, really; perhaps it was when the bombs first dropped on Shanghai and Peking, or perhaps when Hull went up in the second, more general conflagration. It was probably when the T-54s reached the Channel, he thought; by that point it was obvious the war was over.
It was his last memory of Britain as a boy; his only memory of Britain, really, for thirty years; after that it was Toronto, then Harvard. His business and charitable work had kept him busy after that, not to mention Margaret, who had followed him from Canada, but he still cast mournful eyes across the Atlantic; there were fundraisers here, discreet meetings with diplomats and potential defectors there… he had kept a presence at home, even if it was a subtle and timid one. Britain had never been quite so under the thumb as the Continent of course, yet the National Government had no desire to stir up trouble by letting somebody like him back into their country.
But then the Soviets began to choke on the massive prize they had won. Holding down a resentful continent had bankrupted them, just as dear Gregory had predicted; he had been there that day in Reykjavik when the President had given the best performance of his life, better than anything the Academy had ever honoured him for; “Mr Ustinov, let your subjects go!” And then came the Frankfurt spring, and the solidarity campaigns, and suddenly the Russians were gone.
“What the hell is Icke wearing?”
Jeffrey’s voice shook him out of his reverie, and he glanced back up at the screen; thanks to the colour screen, they could see that the Ecologist candidate was sporting a turquoise shell-suit as he was interviewed. “He can wear what he wants, he’s only going to wecieve a handful of votes anyhow,” Roy opined, draining his glass and getting up to find another bottle.
Jeffrey snorted as Icke launched into a furious tirade against ‘corporate interests’; the candidate just felt faintly queasy. He’d initially tried to keep his distance from the Barons, of course, but to do politics in Britain these days one needed to lobby them for support. They were keen to speak to him, too; many of them liked the association. It provided glamour, after all. At least in America, the captains of industry were broadly reputable; here, the economic liberalisation of the Stonehouse era had catapulted a whole new group of strange and often extremely disreputable characters to the fore. Webb, Clough, Branson… they were all odd sorts, but had nothing on Big Jim, who was the most powerful of them all.
He’d stayed an evening in Jim’s dreadful Dacha in Glencoe six months earlier; it was all very shabby, considering it belonged to the richest man in Britain. After the stories he’d been told, he was expecting an ogre, or a thug; he hadn’t understood what the fuss was about, to be honest. Perfectly charming man, a little eccentric, that’s all- although the glass eye rings were a little disturbing. They’d spoken for a while, mostly about charity work- Jim raised hundreds of thousands for a variety of good causes, and was heavily involved in the health service- and in the candidate’s view had genuinely bonded when talking about their respective mothers. Thankfully, when he asked Jim if his mother was actually a Duchess, he’d taken it as a joke.
It was really only at the end of the visit that they talked politics, and even then only briefly. Jim had simply taken a drag on his cigar and said, in his sing-song voice, that he liked having the candidate back in Britain. “I’ll do what I can to help you out,” he’d promised, “A lot of people listen to me back home, you know. You’d be surprised; I can get anything. There's nothing I can't get, and there's nothing I can't do. My job in life is to try to help people. Maybe you can help me sometime too.”
The candidate smiled at the memory. A kind man, he thought.
“First results!” Jeffrey exclaimed, and the three men rushed to the television.
“…and in the first round it looks like Charles Windsor will win with considerably more than 50% of the votes cast, immediately placing him in Buckingham Palace without the need for a second round. A very strong vote indeed there, driven it seems by an unexpectedly strong showing for the Prince in the industrial north. So, Professor Bogdanor, why did the polls so badly underestimate his lead?”
Roy broke into applause and drained his glass again; Jeffrey just smirked. “Well done Mr President,” he said, “What did I tell you?”
“Those are much better results than the private polling anticipated,” the candidate beamed. “Where did all those extra votes come-“
He paused, mid-sentence, a terrible realisation forming in his mind. The meeting in Glencoe, the smile, Jeffrey’s serene confidence. Surely not, he thought, not after I campaigned on trust and honesty and British fair play. But what can I do? Do I even want to know if I’m right?
Charles Philip Arthur George Windsor furrowed his eyebrows. “Tell me, Jeffrey-“ he began, then paused and shook his head. “No. Best not.”
He should have been happy. He was happy, to a point. But as he left to make his victory speech, with the champagne corks popping and the singing beginning, the unwelcome thought kept intruding.
Did Jim fix it for me?